Red wine vs white wine -- It may seem somewhat obvious that the difference between red and white wine is the color. Although that is true to some extent, the differences go much deeper, both in the vineyard and during wine production.
Grape skins contain high concentrations of flavor and tannin
compounds, which give wines their signature varietal flavors. Red wines will
develop flavors and aromas of red, black and blue fruit: cherry, raspberry,
strawberry, blackcurrant, etc. White wines will develop flavors and aromas of
green, citrus and stone fruit: apple, lemon, peach, pear, etc.
The skins also contain color compounds. Red wines are produced from black-skinned grapes and white wines are produced from white-skinned grapes. The pulp on the inside of the grape is colorless and made up mostly of water, sugar, and acids. Regardless of skin color, when you crush a grape, the juice will run clear.
Beyond color and flavor, the biggest differences between red and white wines lie in the production processes. Although winemakers may choose to use different production methods, the white wine production method generally tries to retain the more delicate flavors and aromas found in white grapes. Red winemaking focuses on extracting more color, richer flavors, and tannins. Winemakers achieve their various objectives through critical variations in the production process.
Typically, after harvesting the grapes and bringing them into the winery, the crushing takes place immediately in order to release the juices. The juice used for white wine spends very little time in contact with the grape skins.
Winemakers usually separate the juice very quickly from the grape pulp and thereafter store it in sealed, stainless steel tanks. Limiting the skin contact in such ways ensures the bitter tannins in the skins won’t overwhelm the fruit. And, sealed tanks help reduce oxygen contact that can destroy delicate fruit flavors and aromas.
During the making of red wines, the skins may soak (or “macerate”) in the grape juice for a period of time before the start of alcoholic fermentation. This would allow the color and flavor compounds in the skins to bleed into the juice.
White wine is often fermented
in sealed, stainless steel tanks. Cooler
temperatures help protect delicate fruit characteristics that can be lost at
Winemakers ferment Red wines at higher temperatures to help extract color, flavors, and tannins from the skins. The skins and pulp that remain in the juice are called the “cap". Thus, red wine fermentation often occurs in open-top vats, allowing winemakers easy access so they can agitate the cap regularly to further extract color, flavors, and tannins into the juice.
After alcoholic fermentation is complete, white wines that
are intended to have a light, fruity, aromatic style (e.g., Sauvignon Blanc and
Riesling) are bottled as soon as possible with no further winemaking processes
occurring. Other white wines that are less fruity and meant to be fuller-bodied
(e.g., Chardonnay) may undergo techniques such as malolactic
fermentation (MLF), lees stirring,
and oak maturation. The technique used depends on the style of wine the
winemaker is trying to achieve.
MLF uses bacteria to convert tart malic acid (think green apples) into soft lactic acid (think milk), giving wines (like Chardonnay) that buttery, creamy texture. Lees are dead yeast cells left over after alcoholic fermentation. Rather than filtering out the lees immediately, winemakers may keep them in contact with the wine for a period of time to create a richer texture and add yeasty, bread-like flavors. Maturing the wine in oak barrels for a short time will impart some tannins and flavors such as toast, vanilla, cinnamon, and smoke into the wine.
For red wines that have completed alcoholic fermentation,
the winemaker may choose to further macerate the skins with the wine depending
on the ultimate style the winemaker wants to achieve. The longer the post-fermentation maceration,
the more tannins will be extracted and the smoother (less bitter and
astringent) those tannins will become.
Most red wines undergo MLF, but they don’t typically spend time on the lees because the delicate lees characteristics would be lost in the bolder flavors of red wine. Instead, the Red wine often goes through oak barrels storage and aging for about six months to four years. (But the typical aging duration is anywhere between twelve and eighteen months). The longer the amount of time spent in barrels, the greater the concentration of oak characteristics imparted into the wine.
Fruity, aromatic white wines are usually bottled as single varietals. This is to let the purity of the fruit, with its more delicate flavors and aromas, shine through.
Red wines are often the blends of different grape varieties. However, some blends may be a mix of the same grape varieties but grown in different sites. some other blends can also be of the same grapes that have undergone different winemaking processes (e.g., aged longer, more or less oak used, etc.). Blending can add complexity to the finished wine, or balance out certain aspects of wine, such as color, body, tannin or flavor.
The factors that help wines age are acidity, tannins, alcohol, and sugar. In general, full-bodied reds like Cabernet Sauvignon, Barolo and Bordeaux can age for a longer period of time (some for decades) because they contain high levels of tannins and higher alcohol levels.
Certain full-bodied whites, such as high-quality Chardonnay, can be cellared for seven to ten years due to high acidity and tannins imparted by oak aging. However, winemakers seem to prefer keeping white wines young, usually within one to three years. Light and fruity white wines like Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio will lose their delicate aromas and flavors very quickly in the bottle. Similarly, lighter red wines, such as Pinot Noir (that don’t have the same high tannins and alcohol as bigger red wines) should be drunk young.
Older red wines that have been resting in a bottle for many years can throw off the sediment that looks ugly in the glass, leaves an unpleasant gritty texture in the mouth, and can make a wine taste more astringent. Decanting will gently separate out the sediment, leaving it behind in the bottle. A beautiful and functional Prestige Decanter will leave you with beautiful glasses of aged red wine.
Decanting can also aerate a wine that might be young and tight. When you pour wine into a decanter, it comes into contact with oxygen that helps smoothen the rough tannins and open up aromas and flavors. Aeration particularly benefits full-bodied, highly tannic red wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux, and Syrah.
Young, fresh white wines are unlikely to require decanting. However, fuller-bodied, more complex white wines can benefit from decanting in the same way as red wines. White wines like Chardonnay may open up, developing more nuanced flavors and aromas with decanting. There is even a new trend in decanting older vintage Champagnes to soften the bubbles and reveal more complex flavors.
The differences between red and white wine are more than skin deep. The skins help determine the color and some flavors, but winemaking practices significantly influence the final style of wine that ends up in your glass. What’s your favorite color and style of wine? Tell us why in the comments below.